23rd September 2013
I am pleased to announce the launch of Constitute, a website for reading, searching, and comparing the world’s constitutions. Constitutions are critical to countries’ development. Outcomes, like democracy, economic performance and human rights protection, are all associated with the contents of countries’ constitutions. It is little wonder, then, that constitutions are often blamed for poor economic and political outcomes or that such outcomes commonly result in constitutional change. Constitute aims to improve constitutional design and, in doing so, increase the likelihood that countries’ constitutions will facilitate development, rather than hinder it. Numerous countries change their constitution each year. Already this year we have observed new constitutions in Fiji and Zimbabwe and constitutional amendments in Brazil, Colombia, the Czech Republic, Georgia, Hungary, Mexico, Switzerland and Tonga. In addition, countries like Egypt, Myanmar, Tunisia and Yemen are all known to be in various stages of the constitutional revision process. Some might be surprised to learn that so many countries have either recently revised or intend to revise their constitutions. After all, constitutions are meant to be timeless documents that establish the foundations for politics and governance from one generation to the next. This may be true in the United States or Western Europe, but most countries’ constitutions are fragile. A typical constitution lasts only 19 years, which means that, on average, 5 constitutions are replaced and 30 are amended each year.
Despite the high level of constitutional change each year, there is no country that changes its constitution often enough for public officials to gain much experience as constitutional drafters. Constitutional drafters are typically engaged in a task that they have never done before and will never do again. They lack systematic information on the contents of other countries’ constitutions that could help them to decide what topics should be addressed in their constitution and how to address those topics. Such information is hard to acquire. There is no single location that constitutional drafters can use to access and compare constitutional documents and language – which is critical to drafters – because these documents are locked up in libraries or on the hard drives of constitutional experts.
Constitute addresses this problem by putting searchable copies of the world’s constitutions online. However, Constitute is more than just a repository of constitutional texts. The project draws on data collected by the Comparative Constitutions Project over the last 8 years to assign topic tags to provisions within constitutions. This allows for powerful, topic-based searches of those texts. There are more than 300 topics for users to choose from on the site, which range from the fairly general – e.g. the structure of the branches of government – to the very specific – e.g. voting rights for indigenous groups. For those interested in regional or temporal trends in constitution-making, the search results can be filtered by country and year.
Our hope is that Constitute will improve constitution-making by allowing drafters to consider the full array of possible choices when determining the contents of their country’s constitution. We also anticipate that the tool will empower domestic actors not directly involved in drafting the constitution but who are, nonetheless, integral to the success of that process. Increasingly, constitution-making processes ask the public to participate, for example by submitting suggestions to the constitutional drafting committee or approving the completed draft in a public referendum. Constitute will facilitate participation in these aspects of the constitution-making process by allowing groups in civil society, academia, and the general public to inform themselves about how other countries have tackled particular problems.
More generally, the constitutions available on Constitute will be of great interest to numerous domestic actors in countries all over the world. Many constitutions are not available in digital form and tools to organize their provisions for a non-specialist are rare, even though there is substantial demand for such tools from public officials, lawyers, non-governmental organizations, students, etc. Constitute can be used by such individuals to learn about their constitutions. Want to know if your constitution protects freedom of religion or the right to health care or even the rights of breast-feeding mothers? Just search for the term you are interested in, using either a topic or free text search, and filter the results to display only the country where you reside. (For the curious reader, note that only Ecuador’s constitution mentions the rights of breast-feeding mothers.)
Constitute will increase transparency in countries throughout the world by ensuring universal access to the world’s constitutions. We expect that access to these important documents will improve constitution-making as well as empower the general public to play a more active role in their country’s governance.